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An Impermanent Take on Permanence: Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

One of the key articles of faith among adherents to the Romantic sensibility is the primacy of art. Perhaps no text serves as faux scripture to that belief better than John Keats’ poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” A reader, even one inclined against the Romantic worldview, can find a good deal to admire in this poem, yet at the same time, this reader finds a great deal against which to rebel.

Were Keats to stroll into an English composition class and submit the essay version of this poem–or most of his other works–he would not be criticized for the same sins that the bulk of freshman commit. Even in verse, Keats supports his ideas with plentiful development, lavishing examples upon the reader and rendering those with excellent sensory detail. One can scarcely imagine his tutor writing, “Be more specific!” on Keats’ writing. Given that the poet died just slightly older than the typical undergraduate makes this quality of his writing all the more praiseworthy.

In ”Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the reader is left to imagine the poet gazing at a piece of ancient pottery and reflecting on how timeless that work of art makes the image represented there. He notes that the lovers, although they will never consummate their kiss, will remain ever near and ever young. The trees will never shed their leaves.

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Certainly, Keats has a point in focusing on things that permanent–if not eternal–over things that are fleeting. Yet only if one does not read too closely or consider the ramifications of his theory does “Thou shalt remain” seem like better than a hollow promise.

Who, given the choice, would select an eternity nearly kissing one’s beloved to the completion of that kiss? Is the tree forever in leaf to be preferred to the one that grows, reproduces, and eventually dies? Even a completely secular reader would surely not opt for that frozen life, vitality reduced to a motionless artifact. The youthful folly that the youthful Keats commits here is to suggest that art somehow has an existence of its own. That Grecian urn, for all its beauty, depends upon a sensitive viewer for whatever merit its future life enjoys. Even today, not quite 200 years after its writing, this poem is rarely read outside of literature classes. Will its promise of “Thou shalt remain,” which Keats allows to be suggests for his work of art just as for the Attic vase he describes, have any meaning when his lines are no longer read?

This poem concludes with a celebrated pair of lines, partly ascribed to the now-speaking urn:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Such an idea, upon a bit of examination, falls considerably short of convincing. “Beauty is truth,” he claims–or rather the urn, voiced by the poet, claims. Yet famously, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” When literary currents shift and leave Keats in a backwater, as they largely have among the wider reading population, then would not Keats have to confess that truth has changed as beauty has? Or would he suggest that beauty is a fixed quantity (which of course his verse represents)?

Having read those concluding lines, I’m reminded of the concluding lines of Ecclesiastes:

Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.(12:13-14)

These lines propose a completely different source of authority, purpose of life, and standard for truth. Comparing those two endings, I find Keats’ study on the urn intriguing but seriously wanting. Like many poets, the more philosophical he attempts to become, the more he discloses the flaws in his own reasoning.

Posted in English Literature, Romanticism.

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